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VMware vSAN HCI multi-cloud setup keeps ambulance airbound

Angel MedFlight runs a multi-cloud setup, using a customer-built app and hyper-converged infrastructure built on VMware vSAN software and HPE ProLiant servers.

For Angel MedFlight, keeping its IT operations running can be a matter of life and death.

Angel MedFlight, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., transports patients by a Learjet fleet of medical aircraft to hospitals throughout the world. Angel MedFlight flight coordinators must be available at all times, and each aircraft has a medical crew aboard.

The air ambulance company relies on a multiple cloud setup and data centers in Texas and Colorado to keep communications open at all times. Angel MedFlight developed its own application on top of Salesforce that connects to AWS S3, and relies on a VMware vSAN-powered hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) running on Hewlett Packard ProLiant servers for on-premises compute and storage. Angel MedFlight uses Cisco CallManager for call centers.

"We've got aircraft in the air and patients on board. We need something that has 24/7 uptime," said Paul Green, Angel MedFlight's chief development officer, of his IT design goal.

Angel MedFlight's custom-built MedLog application runs on iPads to capture and store information on patients, as well as track air ambulances. The data resides on AWS GovCloud.

Green said Angel MedFlight backs up changed data every three minutes to a Microsoft SQL server that is an exact replica of its Salesforce database.

He said Angel MedFlight can keep its office running for 12 hours without power. The workstations in the call centers run on UPSes connected to two switches and two firewalls. One network stack is active and the other on standby. The vSAN HCI nodes have their own redundant setup.

Paul Green, chief development officer, Angel MedFlightPaul Green

"Our devices are constantly talking to each other," Green said. "No matter where our users are anywhere in the world, they're connecting to one of those devices for live data. So all of our users have live data through the iPad app, no matter where they are."

Green said his vSAN HCI setup gives Angel MedFlight 24/7, year-round uptime for a relatively small price tag.

"People think the price tag makes something like this out of reach," he said. "But it's the same money as if I bought a series of servers and a physical SAN. We looked at everything, the total cost of ownership, and this makes more sense. This is cheaper, faster, more secure and provides more uptime."

Built to scale up, fail over quickly

Angel MedFlight switched over to vSAN HCI in 2018 from a three-tier architecture that used HPE Nimble storage arrays with Cisco UCS servers and Cisco switching. Green said hyper-converged infrastructure lets him scale compute and capacity faster.

"I wanted something that was converged, something simple, something that took advantage of all the new features that VMware would add," he said. "In the previous setup, if a server went down, it wouldn't automatically run on another host. We didn't have that standby hosts set up for failover. Now we have four hosts running in a vSAN."

Green said he chose HPE ProLiant Gen10 servers "built specifically to handle the rigors of vSAN, as well as to allow us to have security moving forward. If we want another chassis, we throw some drives in it. It's a little oversized, but it allows us to add extra nodes if we have to grow incrementally."

Our goal was to build this for five years so we wouldn't have to touch our hardware again for five years.
Paul GreenChief development officer, Angel MedFlight

He said he can add a server and storage capacity in 20 minutes.

"I couldn't do that with my old setup," Green said. "Our goal was to build this for five years so we wouldn't have to touch our hardware again for five years. So unless our business quadruples overnight, we're in a good spot."

Angel MedFlight started with four HPE vSAN nodes. The servers are a mixture of all-flash and hybrid appliances with flash and hard disk drives. Critical data goes on the faster flash, with a hard disk drive (HDD) used for noncritical day. Green said the desire to use mix hybrid and all-flash servers prevented him from selecting VMware ReadyNode systems with vSAN packaged on ProLiant hardware. 

"SSDs are great at what they do, but why not put critical data on SSDs and the other stuff that you 'don't need but it's nice to have because it keeps your employees happy' on spinning disk?" he said. "We could get more for our money because we partitioned our data in a way so it made more sense. All user data is already in the cloud on Amazon or Salesforce, so I already had two copies of that on two different clouds. I put copies of that data on cheaper storage inside the vSAN so I can monitor it."

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